Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Feb. 3, 2009

Jim: Well, Scott, a big week in the books and plenty to talk about. We’ve got a new number-one team in the country, upsets at the top of the rankings and a legitimate national title contender emerging in Northeastern. So let’s start with the Huskies, who last night made a loud and bold statement in manhandling Boston College in the opening round of the Beanpot. Northeastern may have been upset at Massachusetts on Friday night, but steamrolled a pretty decent Eagles team in a 6-1 victory. Northeastern did it by executing a game plan of pressure, pressure, pressure as the Huskies forced BC mistakes all night and took advantage. We’ve talked a lot about many of the top teams in the polls and the PairWise but Northeastern has flown under our radar at least. Maybe that’s because a year ago, the Huskies also charged to a hot start but collapsed in mid-January and never recovered. At this point, though, we’re into February and NU earns a huge win on a big stage at the Beanpot. Is it time to begin taking Northeastern seriously as an NCAA title contender?

Scott:Jim, we’ve both seen Northeastern live and in person — you in the course of your regular rounds out East and me here in Minneapolis when the Huskies played Minnesota in the title game of the Dodge Classic holiday tournament. The game I saw was about as even as it could be, and though the Gophers ended up with a 3-2 overtime win it could just as easily have gone the other way, especially when you consider that Minnesota’s OT goal came on the power play after a controversial and untimely delay-of-game penalty against the Huskies. So my up-close impression of Northeastern was a favorable one, particularly of Brad Thiessen in net. Come NCAA tournament time (and barring an utter collapse, NU will be there) the Huskies should be among the teams considered as true national-title contenders, especially if Thiessen is hot at the right times. Of course, the next step for Northeastern is to just win Monday’s Beanpot final against Boston University, which would give them unparalleled confidence down the stretch.

Jim: You bring up another team worth talking about: Boston University. The Terriers were supposed to have a walk in the park in Monday’s Beanpot opener but instead had to rally from a two-goal deficit and then needed instant replay after it appeared Harvard tied the game at the buzzer (replay, of course, showed that the puck entered the net after the clock showed all zeroes). There were rumors of the flu bug going through the team, which could have accounted for an uncharacteristic slow start. Regardless, BU did what it needed to do: win. That, of course, sets up a BU-NU final, which could conceivably be for the top spot in the national rankings and possibly the PairWise. Any thoughts heading into next Monday’s title game?

Scott:Thought number one is that I wish I had been there to see that. Thought number two is that I was going to say that Northeastern needs the win Monday a lot more than Boston University, but on a second look I’m not sure that’s true. Remember what happened to BU the last time the Terriers hit number-one in the poll? They immediately lost to UMass, then twice more the next weekend against Vermont. Of course, Jack Parker’s guys have lost exactly one game since then, so the funk didn’t last long. Regardless, the possibility of No. 1 versus No. 2 is always an interesting storyline, though I would assume that both Parker and Greg Cronin will have very little trouble keeping their teams’ minds off that fact given the circumstances. (Naturally, we also shouldn’t forget that NU isn’t No. 2 yet — Notre Dame is, and the Fighting Irish’s only recent transgression was losing to Michigan, which is hardly an embarrassment in any case.) Speaking of flying under the radar, though, how about Yale? The Bulldogs have lost just once in their last 10, are tied for first in ECAC Hockey with Cornell, and suddenly are on the right side of the PairWise bubble. This isn’t quite a situation where no one saw them coming — our own ECAC correspondent, Brian Sullivan, picked them third in the league despite the coaches and media agreeing on seventh — but I doubt many outside of Connecticut can name more than a handful of Bulldog players.

Jim: I certainly can’t name many players on the Yale roster, but I can name their coach, Keith Allain. This is a man who knows how to build winning teams. He was a heck of a goaltender at Yale in the late ’70s and he did a great job in building the best goaltending and team in the NHL when he coached St. Louis back in the end of the ’90s and beginning of this decade. Senior Alec Richards is having a great season in goal for the Bulldogs with a 10-2-0 record and a 2.40 goals against average. At the same time, Yale is putting up points. The Bulldogs boast three players with double-digit goal tallies and six players with 16 or more points. At this point, I have to believe that come season’s end, we’ll be talking about Yale. Making the NCAA tournament is going to take consistency down the stretch, but it’s nice to see the Yale program alive and well for the first time in more than a decade. Now, following up on a story for last week, Atlantic Hockey, as expected, will be admitting both Robert Morris and Niagara in 2010. I happened to come upon an article by the The Buffalo News’ Bob DiCesare that was highly critical of Niagara’s decision to move to an “inferior” league such as Atlantic Hockey. He said this was the program’s signal that it’s waving the white flag, stating that it can’t compete with the nation’s top teams. I have to say that I think DiCesare is both out of line and uninformed. Niagara’s only hope was Atlantic Hockey, and watchers of the game should be glad they’re not talking about dissolving the program. If anyone thinks that Atlantic Hockey is a step down from College Hockey America, I think they’re way off base. Your thoughts?

Scott:Once upon a time I would have said that at least the top teams in the CHA were better than the top teams in the AHA, but that’s no longer true thanks to the achievements of programs like Holy Cross, Mercyhurst, RIT and Air Force. Between the two leagues, only the AHA has an NCAA tournament win, and though that’s just one game, it still means something. I read DiCesare’s column and I can understand that he really hoped that Niagara would land in one of the “Big Four” conferences, but hope isn’t a strategy. He seems to think that if Niagara had just waited around, something would have opened up, and there’s simply no evidence of that. Says DiCesare, “There was no need to team up with a lesser conference just because Niagara’s current league, College Hockey America, is about to dissolve.” Even ignoring the “lesser conference” point, yes, there was a need. There’s no way to survive these days without a league to play in, and no one wants to be left without a seat when the current game of College Hockey Musical Chairs ceases, the way Alabama-Huntsville may be. Atlantic Hockey is a good home for Niagara, 12 scholarships or not, and if for some reason a few years from now the Purple Eagles are unsatisfied with their choice, they can revisit their situation then.

Jim: I agree with you wholeheartedly. And I also believe that Atlantic Hockey may re-evaluate scholarships in the coming years. I have no proof of this, but I covered that league for nearly a decade dating back to its days as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and I can comfortably say that scholarship limits are an issue raised pretty much every year. What coach wouldn’t want to find a way to recruit more top players? It’s just whether the school can afford the cost. As for competing as an independent, DiCesare may be remembering the days when Blaise MacDonald led that school as a Division I independent. Back in the late ’90s, being an independent was much more acceptable. Plus MacDonald had strong relationships with coaches who supported Niagara’s bid to enter Division I hockey and thus, maybe, did a favor to schedule the Purple Eagles. MacDonald got games with Boston University, Michigan and many other top programs back in 2000 and earned an NCAA at-large bid. Over the past five seasons, I’d argue that these games have become rarer for Niagara. They did play a single game at Michigan this year and a couple of series at Minnesota and Denver in recent years, but these one-offs aren’t going to create a schedule that will make Niagara a perennial NCAA contender. The school’s at-large bid in 2000 was an exception, not a rule. And even then, technically, the program wasn’t a Division I independent. So I think that when push comes to shove, Niagara made a decision that was very much in the interest of sustaining a Division I program. Anyway, enough about that — what do you have your eye on this weekend?

Scott: In my neck of the woods there’s the “Border Battle” between Wisconsin and Minnesota (though I’ll miss Friday’s game, darn it all), which is shaping up to be a big series for pride, momentum, positioning in the WCHA standings and of course, the PairWise. Wisconsin is in third place in the league right now, but if the Gophers sweep at Mariucci the Badgers could drop as low as sixth — one spot below the home-ice cutoff. Meanwhile, Minnesota simply needs wins, having lost four of its last six in conference play. Elsewhere, the combination of the Notre Dame-Ohio State series and single games between Merrimack and Northeastern and Massachusetts-Lowell and Boston University should determine whether the Beanpot final Monday is that one-two matchup on which we’ve been speculating. And we’ll see if Yale can stay hot against Harvard and Dartmouth in ECAC play. So that’s my marquee for the weekend, and on that cue, we’ll see you next week.


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